The Point of the Pyramid: Michael Fried’s “Flaubert’s ‘Gueuloir”

By Joshua LandyJuly 20, 2013

The Point of the Pyramid: Michael Fried’s “Flaubert’s ‘Gueuloir”

Flaubert’s “Gueuloir” by Michael Fried

IN MARCH 1857, in between his acquittal for “offenses to public and religious morality and to good morals” and the emergence of Madame Bovary in book form, Flaubert wrote a now-famous letter to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie. “There is nothing true in Madame Bovary,” he told her. “It’s a completely invented story; I put nothing of my feelings and nothing of my life in it.” Indeed, he continued, “it is one of my principles that one must not write oneself. The artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and omnipotent; let him be felt everywhere, but let him not be seen.” Flaubert wasn’t being entirely straightforward about the origins of his story, and he probably got his “principle” from Friedrich Schiller, but as a diagnosis of his achievement in Madame Bovary, that letter was surely spot on. You know he’s up to something in his writing, and you can even make a guess or two as to what that something might be; but you can never be entirely confident that you’re right. To this day, Flaubert’s way of going about business has remained the default option for serious novelists, most of whom think of themselves (with varying degrees of modesty) as hidden gods of their fictional universes. What Flaubert did, in a sense, was to generate an endless series of Dei absconditi.

But here’s the question: what exactly does it mean for a God to be “felt everywhere”? Argument-by-design types may claim that they can see evidence of God’s hand not just in majestic whales and adorable bunnies but in the tiniest speck of dust, or even in that parasitical wasp, the Dinocampus coccinellae, whose vicious hatchlings turn ladybugs into zombies before eating them alive. Hardened Darwinians, however, will point to all such phenomena as the result of a series of random mutations. And Gnostics, if any are still around, will say there is a designer, but a colossally incompetent one: invisible, sure; omnipotent, not so much.

Now the same thing is true, to some extent, for a writer of fiction. While defenders of Proust will tell you how wonderful it is that the theories of love expressed by his narrator are contradicted by what his characters actually do, more skeptical critics will say he slipped up, and downright cynical critics (yes, there are some) will say that Proust was just a mindless factory for random literary mutations. If authors choose to remain “invisible,” how can we know whether they actually intended all those touches we love so much? Can we really say that every tension, every phoneme, every punctuation mark — the literary equivalent of a speck of dust — was put there on purpose?

This fascinating conundrum is at the heart of Michael Fried’s wonderful new book, Flaubert’s “Gueuloir,” where it is joined by a second, equally fascinating conundrum — one that Fried, to my knowledge, is the first to identify. It was Flaubert’s practice to take every single passage he had written and declaim it in a loud voice, a procedure he referred to as the gueuloir (“gueuler” means more or less “to yell”). The point, according to numerous pieces of correspondence, was to detect and eliminate repeated sounds: “the best–intentioned of sentences,” he told Louise Colet, “spoils its effect as soon as it contains an assonance.” Yet Madame Bovary is chock full of repeated sounds, right from the first chapter. (Remember the wonderful “Charbovari” scene: “on hurlait, on aboyait, on trépignait, on répétait: Charbovari! Charbovari!”) If Flaubert’s intention was to avoid assonance, then, all that yelling was a spectacular failure. What on earth happened? Was Flaubert the world’s worst self-editor? Did he just luck his way into a literary masterpiece?

Fried’s book solves both conundrums at once, and his solution is a brilliant one. It consists, essentially, in the idea that authorial intentions may be carried out by mechanisms of which authors themselves are barely aware. This makes it reasonable to ascribe the microscopic choices — vowels, consonants, punctuation marks — to Flaubert; it also explains, at the same stroke, why the gauntlet of the gueuloir was so stunningly ineffective.

In order to clarify his theory, Fried reintroduces us to Félix Ravaisson, a philosopher he first discussed in Courbet’s Realism (1990). Ravaisson, who wrote the highly influential De l’habitude in 1838, was very much on Aristotle’s side: you can have good habits or bad habits, but there’s nothing bad about the good ones. Ravaisson would have had no time for Beckett’s famous line, “habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit”; not all habits, he would have countered, are quite so tyrannical. In fact, Ravaisson’s crucial claim is that habitual actions can still be free, even though they are not specifically willed.

You are probably not aware of all the actions you are performing in order to read this review: moving your eyes in repeated saccades from one chunk of text to another, translating shapes into sounds and meanings, returning to reread the occasional word or phrase, flipping pages or scrolling down. Beginning readers are aware of such things, because they are able to do them only with conscious effort. After a certain point, however, reading becomes a conditioned reflex.  So here you are, moving your eyes all over the place, without being the slightest bit aware of doing so. Does that mean you didn’t intend to read this review? That you were driven to read it by forces outside of your control?

The answer, of course, is no. These days one often hears statistics from neuroscientists about the percentage of our actions that are performed by subcortical mechanisms, and many are quick to draw the conclusion that we are all essentially biological robots, with only the illusion of free will. But the fact is, as Ravaisson saw very well, that in many cases the ability to delegate tasks to subcortical mechanisms is the sign of increased control. The better you are at reading, the more you can do it on autopilot. Are your daily actions 95 percent automatic? Congratulations! You’re doing it right.

So here, I take it, is what Fried thinks took place in the case of Madame Bovary. (I am reading between the lines a little here; Fried maintains a more modest distance from such precise speculations.) Flaubert yelled his way through page after page of manuscript, ostensibly on the trail of assonances. His conditioned reflexes, however, knew better, and he knew well enough to trust them. What the gueuloir revealed to him was not something as mechanical as whether each sentence contained or did not contain an assonance but rather whether an individual sentence felt right, given its particular place and specific function. Thus the gueuloir simultaneously failed in its stated ambition and proved a tremendous success in an ambition Flaubert did not quite know he had (namely, to yell his way to stylistic perfection, assonance or no assonance). It thereby served the greater ambition he did know he had: to write a masterpiece in which the author would, like God, be discernible everywhere and visible nowhere. And that is why all those microscopic choices — choices that would be so hard for anyone to intend in full conscious awareness — are, after all, ascribable to him, and why it makes such perfect sense for readers to adopt the new position he created for them, as vigilant attenders to numerous streams of information at once.


According to Fried, mind you, even this was not quite enough for Flaubert. The next thing Flaubert did after finishing Madame Bovary was to write Salammbô, ditching his unparalleled conditioned reflexes in favor of painstaking, piecemeal, deliberate, line-by-line decisions. In fact, the whole purpose of Salammbô, as Fried sees it, was “to foreground the action of authorial will at every point.” The characters are deliberately implausible; the description is deliberately excessive; the violence is deliberately gratuitous; the spelling is deliberately capricious; the assonances are deliberately intensified, vastly outstripping anything in Madame Bovary; the historical context is deliberately insignificant; the rousing final sentence turns out to be deliberately vacuous. The point of this novel is to have no point. After all, didn’t Flaubert himself compare a great book to a pyramid? “It isn’t good for anything!” he gushes in a letter quoted in Fried’s book. “And it stays in the desert! albeit prodigiously dominating it.”

Fried sees all this willfulness as giving Salammbô a “unique place in the history of modern French literature.” And maybe that’s correct. Other works, like Mallarmé’s sonnets, surely give Salammbô a run for its money in terms of their extraordinarily careful and deliberate construction; still, perhaps it’s true that, in terms of the ratio of effort to pointlessness, Salammbô takes the prize. The question, though, is: just what kind of prize are we talking about? The thing about pyramids, after all, is that they are quite nice to look at. And the Pharaohs, of course, commissioned them for reasons beyond simply the desire to dominate the desert, a fact that may well form part of the pleasure we take in them. When it comes to Salammbô, by contrast, Fried himself has to admit that there is something a little “sadistic” about it. All that violence is going to “shock or disgust” the reader — and not in a good way. Shocking, disgusting, and monotonous works of art can, of course, be wonderful, when there is some kind of ulterior motive to the shock, disgust, and monotony. (The history of the avant-garde is full of choice examples.) But as Fried points out, Flaubert needs Salammbô to be gratuitous, in the strictest sense of the word: the existence of any ulterior motive would defeat Flaubert’s purpose, a strangely self-absorbed desire to stamp his will all over everything, without regard for the rest of us.

Baudelaire’s more or less simultaneous experiment in poetic prose, which Fried discusses, is a helpful contrast case. Unlike Flaubert (as Fried describes him), Baudelaire has a reason for creating a new kind of literary language: it is designed, Baudelaire says, to “adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the leaps and bounds of consciousness.” In particular, the combination of poetry and prose is perfect for rendering the movements of a mind torn between idealism and cynicism (what Baudelaire, in a fantastic piece, calls “the soup and the clouds”). But the mere desire to control everything, just for its own sake, seems unlikely to yield an artwork of any inherent interest. Being a tour de force may not be enough: people fly thousands of miles to witness the pyramids, but few travel far to see Stan Munro’s cathedrals made of toothpicks. Would anyone today read Salammbô if it hadn’t been written by Flaubert?

As Fried points out, Flaubert himself quickly abandoned the Salammbô experiment, returning in L’Education sentimentale (1869) to a style very similar to that of Madame Bovary. Indeed, Fried goes so far as to speculate that “the grueling and prolonged effort that went into the writing of Salammbô had the effect of liberating Flaubert for the great project that followed, the composition of L’Education sentimentale.” “Liberating” is right: there is something confining about the pointless perfection of Salammbô. One wants (after a while) to be liberated from it. One does not wanted to be liberated from the pyramids.


I suppose it’s possible to imagine some churlish readers getting picky about one or two things in Fried’s book. They might worry that too many of Flaubert’s characters end up being figures for the author himself (not only Emma and Canivet but also Hamilcar, Hannon, the bull at the state fair, and even Fureur de Baal the elephant). They might be interested in hearing more about Flaubert’s rhythms, his sentence structure, and his use of sound patterns (as opposed to just sound repetitions). They might be eager for speculation about what cultural-historical development in mid-19th-century France could have produced the occurrence, so close together, of Ravaisson, Flaubert, and Courbet. (A reaction to first-wave Romanticism, perhaps? A way to preserve the notion of form being dictated by temperament, but in conjunction with an increased emphasis on craft?)

Such readers should bear in mind that these small lacunae (if indeed they are that) find themselves more than offset by some truly brilliant side-notes, such as the miniature history of attitudes to the will in 19th-century aesthetics, the observation that the line of heads in Courbet’s Enterrement à Ornans mimics the serpentine course of a river, or the insight (only someone as deeply immersed in both art history and literary criticism as Fried could come up with this) that some aspects of the visual world are actually better captured by writers than by painters. And above all, such readers should bear in mind that these are essays. They do just what good essays are supposed to do: they scintillate. Perhaps they don’t offer fully worked-out theories of intention, or overarching accounts of Flaubert’s artistic career, but that’s not their remit. What they do is raise vital questions, offer forceful arguments for the claims they advance, engage productively with prior scholarship, and — most of all — get us thinking. This is the most important book on Flaubert to come out in quite some time, and if, in addition, it changes the way we think about aesthetic intention, it will have done all of us a huge favor. Even those of us who stubbornly stick to our assessment of Salammbô.


Joshua Landy is associate professor of French and co-director of the Literature and Philosophy Initiative at Stanford University.

LARB Contributor

Joshua Landy is associate professor of French and co-director of the Literature and Philosophy Initiative at Stanford University. His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (2004) and How To Do Things with Fictions (2012).


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